Damaging rail strike looms as White House calls for talks to continue
President Joe Biden is having better news this week, with Senate wins and an end to his Covid bout. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP)

The Biden administration was still working Wednesday to avoid a major strike by US freight railroad workers this weekend, which threatens to disrupt travel and supply chains two months before crucial midterm elections.

Freight railroad companies and two unions representing mainly train conductors were called to a meeting at the Labor Department in Washington on Wednesday, two days after President Joe Biden sought to mediate in the dispute threatening to paralyze the US train network and hurt the wider economy.

In order to avert a strike on Friday at midnight, the sides would need to reach a deal, which would then be presented to the union members for a vote.

Absent an agreement, the unions and management could decide to continue the talks, keeping railroad workers on the job -- or Congress could step in to block the strike.

Any strike would be bad news for Biden, who regularly expresses strong support for workers but is also struggling to avoid further economic damage ahead of key midterm congressional elections in early November.

Voters already are worried about soaring prices in the post-pandemic economy, where supply chain issues have been a constant scourge and annual inflation has surged to a 40-year high.

"The president and members of cabinet have been in touch with both unions and companies involved multiple times in order to try to avert a rail shutdown," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a briefing Wednesday.

"All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and come to an agreement," she said. "A shutdown of our freight system rail system is an unacceptable outcome for our economy of the American people and all parties must work to avoid just that."

The Association of American Railroads has warned that a strike would bring 7,000 trains to a halt and could cost $2 billion a day.

Biden in July appointed an arbitration panel to facilitate the discussions and head off a work stoppage. The "emergency board" submitted its recommendations last month, and lawmakers could require the parties to accept the compromise if no deal is reached.

Freight companies began making arrangements on Monday to transport hazardous materials, while Amtrak railroads -- which are not involved in the talks -- said it was cancelling some major routes and long distance trains to avoid disruption. Local commuter lines in the nation's capital also warned of potential disruptions.

The leaders of 10 other unions already reached an agreement with the companies, but one, the IAM District 19 union, said Wednesday its members rejected the deal, although it agreed to continue talks until September 29.

Negotiations are concentrated on provisions for vacation and sick days, with employees complaining they sometimes have to work long hours because of a staff shortages.